Experts: No need to panic over losing Congressional influence over billions in defense spending

While it's good to have senior representation on Congressional committees, experts say Florida will get its defense money
With U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson losing his seat to Gov. Rick Scott, and U.S. Rep. Tom Rooney retiring ,there are no local legislators who will sit on the House and Senate Armed Services committees and the Defense Subcommittees of the House and Senate Appropriations committees. [Times files]
With U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson losing his seat to Gov. Rick Scott, and U.S. Rep. Tom Rooney retiring ,there are no local legislators who will sit on the House and Senate Armed Services committees and the Defense Subcommittees of the House and Senate Appropriations committees. [Times files]
Published November 30

In October, after Hurricane Michael devastated Tyndall Air Force Base in the Florida Panhandle, U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson vowed the base would be rebuilt.

Given his committee assignment, the statement had some heft.

The Florida Senator is a senior member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, one of the four legislative committees charged with overseeing defense spending, which in Florida represents about $80 billion a year, including more than $17 billion in the Tampa Bay region.

But Nelson lost his seat to Gov. Rick Scott. And Tom Rooney, a Republican whose 17th House district includes a sliver of Hillsborough County, is retiring. That means at the moment, there are no local legislators who will sit on the House or Senate Armed Services committees or the Defense subcommittees of the House and Senate Appropriations committees.

Local legislators, defense contractors, economic development groups and organizations supporting the defense infrastructure say they aren’t panicking over the loss of local representation. But a look at how MacDill Air Force Base has benefited shows the value of having senior members on those committees.

Several years ago, U.S. Central Command — which oversees U.S. military operations in the Middle East and Southwest and Central Asia from its home at MacDill — needed a new headquarters. Bill Young, the Indian Shores Republican who headed the influential House Appropriations Committee Defense Subcommittee at the time, was credited by many, including the current Defense Secretary, for making that happen through his leadership position and sheer force of will.

"He gave us a building where we could focus totally on the mission," James Mattis, then a Marine general running CentCom, said of the $75 million appropriated to build the new headquarters, which opened in MacDill in 2011.

The region as a whole benefited from Young's position of influence, said U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist.

"Pinellas County is a major defense hub, owing in large part to Congressman Bill Young’s decades of service," said Crist, a St. Petersburg Democrat.

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Congress oversees defense spending through two sets of committees. The Armed Services committees authorize spending and the Defense Appropriations subcommittees determine how much goes to specific departments, agencies, and programs.

Clearly, having senior representation on those committees is an advantage when it comes to pushing through pet projects.

“One needs to have seniority, positioning or a special relationship to participate at the highest levels,” said Gene Moran, founder and president of Capitol Integration, a Florida defense-focused government relations firm.

The entire state, said Moran, former head of the Florida Defense Contractors Association, has been “somewhat underrepresented at the senior levels of key defense committees” since the near 30 percent turnover of Florida’s Congressional delegation in 2016.

Moran pointed to debate over the Fiscal Year 2020 defense spending bill. Trump has indicated the Pentagon will get about $700 million while the current head of the Senate Armed Services Committee, James Inhofe of Oklahoma, said he wants at least $733 billion.

“Having Florida members engaged in the debate is vitally important to the defense industry in Florida as well as to our overall national defense interests,” Moran said.

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The defense industry pumps more than $17 billion a year to the 7-county region that includes Hillsborough, Pinellas, Pasco and Hernando. It employs more than 163,000 people and represents about 7.6 percent of the region’s Gross Regional Product, according to a 2017 study by Enterprise Florida.

In addition to CentCom, MacDill is home to U.S. Special Operations Command, which provides fully trained and equipped commandos and has its own budget of several billion a year to spend on acquiring and maintaining special operations-specific goods and services. There also are two Air Force refueling wings sharing 24 KC-135 jets, a three-star Marine headquarters, a two-star headquarters overseeing special ops missions in the CentCom region and dozens of other mission partners. In addition, there are Coast Guard and National Guard units in the area as well.

Given all that, many of those contacted by the Times feel the region can weather diminished senior representation in the key committees.

“It will take time for them to climb the ladder back to the higher echelon positions on the key defense committees,” said Tim Jones, president of Cybrix Group, a Tampa defense firm.

But while other states “will probably look to take advantage of any situation that they can,” Jones, also acting head of the Tampa Bay Defense Alliance and vice president of the Florida Defense Alliance, said he’s” not sure, given the lack of earmarks, that there is a specific impact on local defense contractors beyond what contractors all over the country will experience.”

Bob Rohrlack, president and CEO of the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce, said his organization is “not concerned” about the loss of Congressional representation because of Scott and Sen. Marco Rubio, the Miami Republican who sits on the Senate Appropriations Committee, among others.

“Governor Scott understands the importance of Florida’s installations and our growing defense industry and we are confident he will continue to be an advocate in Washington,” Rohrlack said. “Senator Rubio equally understands the importance of military and defense in Florida and his committee assignments, Appropriations and Foreign Relations, are beneficial. “

In statements to the Times, U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis, a Tarpon Springs Republican, and Crist agreed with with Rohrlack and Jones.

“I am confident that the entire Tampa Bay delegation, including Senator Rubio and Senator-elect Scott, will continue working together to ensure the military has the infrastructure it needs to protect our national security,” Bilirakis said.

"There will be big shoes to fill, but the Florida delegation will continue working together to prioritize defense issues," said Crist, adding that he would like to help change the equation by being assigned to the Appropriations Committee and ultimately the defense subcommittee.

Contact Howard Altman at [email protected] or (813) 225-3112 . Follow @haltman .

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